It would be a disservice, and incomplete, to describe George Pelecanos as someone who writes novels about crime. He is, at times, a sociologist, an analyst and an oral historian. Along with Dennis Lehane, an excellent crime writer, and David Simon, author of great non-fiction books Homicide and The Corner, Pelcanos writes for The Wire, one of the best television series ever.
While The Wire is about life in Baltimore, Pelecanos’ books are all focused on Washington D.C. and the suburbs. He does not just focus on the characters and the plot but instead does an incredibly thorough job of describing how people of different genders and relations get along.
A common theme in his books is race relations, which he treats in a much more insightful way than most authors. My favorite example in The Night Gardener is when a white guy has his photo taken with some black charter students: "O'Brien would never see these children again or be involved in their lives, but a photograph of him and a bunch of smiling black kids would make him feel as if he were right with the world. It would also look good on his office wall."
SB: You do dialogue better than most writers. To what do you
attribute that? Do you have a technique for grabbing dialogue that sounds
GP: I have an ear for it. By that I mean I am interested in listening to people
and can retain what I hear. It's been that way with me since I was a kid.
Also, I worked jobs — bartender, shoe salesman, etc. — for many years that had me in daily contact and conversation with people in great numbers. I didn't know I was going to be a writer back then, but is sure did help.
SB: I feel like I know certain neighborhoods of DC because of your
descriptions of them in your books. Is that what you are hoping for from
readers? Do you have plans for books based in other cities or are you going to continue to focus on DC?
GP: I am trying to leave a record of this town. It's become my life's work, and
I doubt I will leave it for other books.
SB: What mystery writers influenced you? If you could get people to read three books what would they be?
There are so many to list. On the more recent side, Elmore Leonard, James
Crumley, Richard Price... a few of the many writers who revolutionized the
modern crime novel. Three books: All the King's Men, The Grapes of Wrath,
and True Grit.